INTERVIEW JEFF SCHMIDT
Interview with Jeff Schmidt Conducted by Maik Reishaus for www.BassTheWorld.com
Hi Jeff. It has lately become quietly around you as a solo bassist. What do you do at the moment?
True, it has been quiet in my bass world. The last solo bass gig I played was in early 2009. It was a house concert. And while it was a good show, I remember feeling really negative about it afterwards.
I felt like I was putting way too much effort into solo bass performances, and not getting as much enjoyment back out of it. Too much effort - too little reward.
On the car ride home that night - I told my wife, I'm done. At least for now - I'm not doing any more coffee shop / house concert type gigs until I feel like I can enjoy it again. There's lots of reasons why I stopped enjoying it, so I really just needed to stop.
I continued to play bass on and off. But I totally abandoned the daily practice regimen I had going for several years. When I realized I didn't miss it, I took that as a sign that I need to give my music effort as much space as needed. I would go weeks without even touching the bass. That was totally inconceivable to me just 6 months prior.
Around that time the economy collapsed. Work colleagues were loosing their jobs and my career in radio seemed to be in very real jeopardy. So I put my
energies into finding my "next career". I began pursuing post production and sound design for visual media. I've found enough going on in creating video game music and sound design to keep me pretty busy.
I still have the radio job, but I spend almost all my non-radio time creating sound & music for video games. That was the time I used to spend practicing bass.
In May of this year, I played bass on the score for an upcoming Sony video game (can't disclose the title yet) .
I was recently hired by Devin Townsend to create 2 short fretless bass solo compositions for his new record. I think he's going to produce them with more instrumentation so they won't be "solo bass" on his record.
I've been experimenting a lot recently with solo bass ideas that are technically far simpler than my previous work. Not sure when or how it will be released. But I'm feeling the bug again. So I'm playing more, but it's all compositional, rather than the "practice" and drills like I used to do.
Nice, I really like the idea of a collaboration of Devin Townsend and Jeff Schmidt. Has he made clear guidelines to the music you had to write?
Bizarre right? I was working in the home studio one night on a sound design project for World Of Warcraft, and I noticed an email from Devin Townsend pop up on my laptop. At first I thought it was his mailing list so I kept working, but when I glanced at it again I noticed the first line seemed too personal to be a newsletter. So I opened it.
He wrote something like he was an aspiring bassist, saw my stuff online, liked it, and he was a fan. Short & simple.
Well, I was blown away. To hear from Devin Townsend personally!
So I emailed him back, gushed about how flattered I was (cuz I was) and we ended up exchanging a few emails.
He said he was working on a different approach for some new music and sent me a demo. He didn't ask - but I pulled out the fretless and played some stuff on it. Not bass lines, but more melodic flourishes. I tucked it in the background with some smokey, cloudy reverbs and sent it back. He said he liked it, and that was that. That was March 2010, I think.
Then, out of nowhere he drops me a
note in Sept asking if he could hire me to play on his new record. I was like - SURE!
He was looking for some transition pieces. So he send me a few tracks he wanted something to fit between. I listened, got a feel for the vibe and wrote 2, 1:30 pieces he could use as transitions. His only direction was "something beautiful". So it helped me focus, but also left a lot to interpretation.
I sent the pieces totally dry - no effects, assuming he'd produce them to sound like "Devin". I can't wait to hear what he's done with them.
I actually really liked the quick turnaround and the shortness of the pieces. I did it in a single evening session. Write and record.
Doing short pieces is something I've thought about doing before. But I always turned away from that because there is momentum behind the idea that "real music", "serious" music or "substantial" music is lengthy. But I now think that's a load.
There's a lot of solo bass stuff out there (including my own) that would have been perfect at 1:30 or 2 minutes, but was stretched into 4 and 5 minute long pieces. Or even longer!
These days, I'm feeling like a 2-3 minute solo bass song could be the most perfect length.
Isn ́t it more a question of compositional ideas and interpretation than a question of length?
In the abstract - certainly. Or if the point is the composition itself, rather than serving some other purpose such as supporting a dominant visual.
In realty, i hear a lot of 4 minute plus solo bass pieces, which to my ears anyway, are really 90 seconds of compositional ideas stretched out to fill 4 minutes.
As a composer and someone who has also done that, I'm compelled to wonder why.
What is it about either our internal beliefs and/or the culture at large that won't let us simply allow a solid :90 musical idea be a
:90 idea. Why the need to make it "more"?
I can only answer that for myself. In my case there's an instinct that a "song" is 3-5 minutes.
So if I have an idea that is completely stated in only 90 seconds, I sense an urge to use repeat or embellish it to make it longer.
To make it conform to a generally accepted definition of a "song". In such a case, length is not compositionally driven, but driven instead by external expectation. From the culture or the marketplace.
I'm experimenting with getting out from under that kind of thinking.
You said that you ́re creating sounds and music for video-games. Do you play yourself?
Of course! I don't think you can create great sound for games without being a player.
But I'm not what I'd call an achievement based player. Not by any stretch. In other words - I don't play games with the intent to get high scores, make leader boards, or to rack up a lot of achievements.
Most console based games can take 20- 40 hours or longer to complete. Between my radio, music, sound for games and film work, I really don't have the time to game hardcore like that. But, when I find a title that totally pulls me in and gets me addicted - I have lost entire weekends to it - for sure!
Mostly I just game to blow off steam, get engrossed in some really creative interactive storytelling, and yes - to go
nuts and blow shit up. :)
On your Sfx-homepage www.jeff- schmidt.com we can get an idea of your work. Really nice stuff! What projects have you worked on recently?
I played bass on some tracks for an upcoming Sony PlayStation 3 game - and created sound design elements for World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm and Diablo 3 - both from Blizzard Entertainment.
Where does this fascination for sounddesign come from?
Technically, I was a sound designer before I was a musician.
The first instrument I got as a child was a Panasonic Cassette Tape Player/Recorder.
My friends and I would make tapes and perform little shows. I'd record things and make weird noises. We'd mess around with pushing the buttons in halfway to record at a slower speed and
then play it back at full speed to create munchkin/chipmunk voices.
That was really my first exposure to sound art.
As a musician I also became interested in the manipulation of sound, by altering the instrument or playing through weird pedals and amps. Later - I got into radio and began experimenting with tape and then digital workstations. I love to create and manipulate sound. I was experimenting early on with building music out of radically modified samples of my bass. I still want to write and release music like that.
The problem I'm having lately is 2 fold. Fair amount of pro sound design work taking my time. Not a bad problem to have. :)
Secondly, even when I have gaps of free time - there's so many musical ideas I want to pursue I'm actually kind of paralyzed. I can't seem to pick one path and stay focused on it long enough to get anything done. I need to break through that. I think it's easier to ignore all my musical impulses when I sense theres no market/interest for it.
One of your musical projects was „Ruiner Severhead“. Very dark electronic music with loads of sounds and atmospheres. Very different from your solo-bass-songs. So Jeff Schmidt has a dark side ?
Ha! Well - the people who know me, on first hearing Outre might have said - "So, Jeff Schmidt has a bright side"?
The Ruiner Severhead project happened very organically.
I was in the middle of recording Outre and started to feel burnt out on the sounds I was using. You know -the clean, audiophile, slightly new-age solo musician sounds. Not only was I recording those sounds - but I had been listening to them for a few years straight.
I remember driving back from one of the Outre sessions at OTR Studios in Belmont CA and I had just gotten a copy of David Torn's new release – Prezens. I had grown pretty tired of Jazz at that point, but I put it on for the ride home.
I wasn't taken with it immediately - but there was something in it that touched me. It was dark and slightly mechanical. And it had elements of things being broken. Those were the opposite of what Outre was shaping up to be.
So when I got home I went through my box of old CDs and found the ultimate in dark, broken, mechanical music - Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral. Further digging revealed KMFDM, Ministry, White Zombie, more NIN. I was like - wow! this is exactly what I want to be hearing right now.
These were all my CDs - but from a time when I was not playing music. Funny - once I started playing bass again, all I wanted to hear was "players" - but when I wasn't playing any music - I had totally different taste.
So I decided I wanted to do music of my own in that "non-players" idiom.
Around that time Bassist Jay Terrien and I were toying with the idea of creating a dual bass project together called Jesus Fist.
The first step was to for each of us to write 6 songs alone to bring to the table and then write some stuff together.
I got on a roll with my 6 songs. It turned into 10 and I ended up writing an entire concept CD worth of material. I decided to release it on it's own as Ruiner Severhead - The Jesus Fist Tapes. Jay followed up a few months later with his own take called Demond Wilson - "The Jesus Fist Studies". I found the Ruiner Severhead project very liberating.
Funny you ask about that now - because just this past weekend I started remixing the Ruiner song Bound in 5.1 surround sound.
I think I'm going to release the first 6 songs of The Jesus Fist Tapes as a new EP re-mixed in surround sound.
There's so many layers in that music, it's so dense and textural that mixing it in surround really opens it up and puts in the depth and dynamics that I just could not get into a stereo mix. Not sure when I'll finish that - probably early 2011. But don't hold me to it. :)
In an earlier interview you answered on the question why you ́re playing solo bass with an deep dissatisfaction with band experiences. What happened?
Bands pursuing original music require everyone to have the same musical goal. All members need to share in the artistic vision. This is not easy. In fact, it's really hard. It's why so many bands dissolve, and why bands that can stay together and actually create amazing music are so special.
When I said I had a deep dissatisfaction with the band experience, it was that difficulty to which I was speaking. I also felt like I had more music to express than I would be able to do in a typical band environment.
The freedom of solo work allowed me to pursue exactly my own vision. I didn't need to sell my ideas to band mates, or wait till the next rehearsal to find out if the idea works, or get sidetracked by the visions of other members.
The downside to treating myself as a musical island like that however - is isolation. Having to answer every creative question for myself is actually quite time consuming. Things take longer than they might otherwise. And doesn't always produce the best result.
I think both "Outre" and "The Jesus Fist Tapes" were great exercises in working toward executing my own vision. I'm proud of both works.
But now, with a few years of distance from them, I can also hear how they might have been even better had I allowed the talents of others into my process. At the time I just wasn't in that head space. I was too busy trying to prove something to myself. I was trying to find my voice and discover my own musical language. So I had to go it alone.
These days I'm actively searching out collaboration and opportunities to work with others musically.
On your homepage and your twitter- account you are writing a lot about the music industry. What are your thoughts on the future of the industry?
OK - that's a huge issue.
Most of my writing was in response to the lament I was hearing from musicians about file sharing and piracy. What seemed to offend most musicians was the idea that music was, or should be free. And the decline in CD sales seemed to bring it all home.
As a music consumer, file sharer and musician myself, I understood and empathized with all sides. As much as anyone I hated the idea that the art I poured my time and heart into creating had almost no chance of recouping the cost of it's production - let alone fairly compensate my creative effort. Not that that is new phenomena.
But I also realized that once music went digital - there was no way to stop it from being copied endlessly for free. That the genie was never going back in the bottle. So tried to urge artists to look for new ways to create a value system around their music - beyond selling CDs. At first a lot of people couldn't imagine a music career without selling CDs.
Now, just a few years later - most indie musicians I know fully embrace and understand the digital reality. And they're working it. CDs are still part of it - but it's a much broader approach.
That said - I don't know if the digital revolution has increased or decreased the number of musicians earning a living from their music. Not sure there's any way to tell beyond anecdotally.
I do know that fans have access to more music than ever before for free. My guess is there's probably more artists making some money rather than nothing these days.
But even with all the free online tools and methods of "getting the word out" I still think it's just as tough for artists to get traction and earn a living from their art.
The amount of music available now is enormous and people's attention is finite. The noise level of self promotion is ratcheted up considerably. Cutting through that noise by getting louder won't work for indie artists because getting louder means spending loads of money on promo and marketing.
So - the big meme among independent artist is to "connect" with their audience using social media. To come down off the "artist" pedestal and mingle with the hoi polloi in the hopes the bond will make it more likely for fans to support your work and spread the word.
It depends on who is doing it - but it has sometimes appeared to me as artists seeking charity from their own fans. It kind of comes off as -hey look, we know you can get our music for free - but since you know we're cool peeps cuz we hang out on Facebook - please consider paying for it. I know this works for a some artists. I just have a slight gag reflex on it.
It's hard enough finding people that like my music. But if my livelihood depends on all those people ALSO liking ME personally? Oh boy. ;)
Ok, now we come to the inevitable bassplayer-questions. What basses do you use at the moment?
I'm still using the same basses:
-Pedulla PentaBuzz for fretless -MTD535 fretted -American Fender P 4 banger -Carvin 6 string Icon bass. All are lefty.
I'm looking for an acoustic fretless that will play and sing like my pedulla but also sound nice, open and organically sonorous.
Do you have written some material on the 6 string ?
I had a few solo pieces written for 6 string I recorded for Outre. When it came time to pick the final tracks for the album those 6 string pieces were the weakest in my opinion, and in the opinion of my producer Cookie Marenco. So I left them off. I think Outre is stronger because of it.
I still have the pre-mastered recordings on 2 inch tape!
These days I have a midi pickup installed on the 6 string and pretty much use it for composing and midi tracking rather than solo material.
You are using loads of different tunings on your basses. Do You experiment with them or do you fit them to the song?
I change the tuning of the bass to capture the vibe, or color I'm going for. These days I don't even think of other tunings as deviations FROM standard. They simply are. Kind of like getting comfortable with various time signatures. At first everything is understood by relating it TO 4/4 - but in time you're able to understand any time signature as it's own world. Same is true with different tunings.
I enjoy altered tunings because I'm almost always trying to generate interesting voicings and polyphony I can play alone without having to develop a lot of crazy playing techniques or do a lot of tapping. Altered tunings is an exceptional technique for that.
It also keeps my ears from slacking off.
I've heard people say altered tuning is a way to make your habitual patterns sound different. And of course they will sound different - mostly bad.
I'd submit that many "normal" players internalize standard tuning as a series of connected muscle memory based patterns. And once they have that down they shut their ears off and play muscle memory. With altered tunings - you really have to listen and feel all the intervals.
That might require the development new fingerings and chord shapes - but it also requires you to listen more. It's like becoming a beginner all over again.
Some people are terrified by that. And I understand the frustration - I really do. Composing this way can be really painful for me.
But that sense of "I don't know what I'm doing" can really force me into creative problem solving. And that has resulted in some of my favorite compositions.
The trick is to understand that while the intervalic relationship between the strings is altered - they are always the same ON each string - 12 fret spaces is still and octave - for example regardless if your string is tuned to E or C#.
So ultimately it's a creative tool with the goal of making music that I enjoy playing.
What FX ́s do you use in the studio and live?
I'm still using the Boss GT series (6 and 10) foot pedals for live. I've increasingly used USB out of the GT10 running into a laptop running Ableton Live - so I can add more DSP based plugin effects if needed. In studio I'm mostly recording direct through a Millennia TD-1 preamp and then doing tone shaping/processing in the box. I still have a collection of weird boutique pedals like the Metasonix Scrotum Smasher and Butt Probe that just make horrible noise. Essential for any Ruiner Severhead project.
Jeff, thanks for the interview and much success for all your projects!
Interview with Jeff Schmidt Conducted by Maik Reishaus for www.BassTheWorld.com